WORTHINGTON — The Minnesota Judicial Branch has been operating mostly remotely for nearly six months, with no end in sight, and that comes with a number of advantages and challenges.
The state's Supreme Court ordered a move to online court proceedings as of March 27. Although a few hearings have still been possible in person, meeting via Zoom has continued for most cases since then.
Nobles County Attorney Joseph Sanow described the move as "a balance between people's Constitutional rights and not spreading infection."
The Fourth and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution both guarantee due process, or fair treatment by the judicial system.
"We're trying to find other ways to accommodate those rights without having people in the courtroom," Sanow explained.
For example, although jury trials have since resumed, some witnesses are able to testify remotely, in order to limit both travel from outside the area and the number of people in the courtroom at any given time.
"I would like to give our prosecutors and our judges a lot of credit," said Nobles County Public Defender Amanda Delaney, noting that the court system has made a great effort to protect defendants' rights.
In some ways, the move to online court hearings has created additional convenience for defendants, judges and attorneys, Sanow said. Defendants from outside Nobles County don't have to take a day off work to travel for their hearings.
Judges throughout the Fifth Judicial District — who are taking turns filling the vacancy left by Gordon Moore until a new judge is appointed — may work from their homes offices or local courthouses, rather than coming to Nobles County. Even within the Prairie Justice Center itself, attorneys don't have to move between courtrooms all day, but can stay in their offices to Zoom into hearings.
However, there are also drawbacks to the new normal, said Delaney.
"It's definitely slowed the court process down," she said.
At the beginning of the pandemic, no evidentiary or probable cause hearings were happening at all, so the defendants who needed those simply had to wait longer.
Technology access has also been a challenge for defendants, she added. Many of the people Delaney and other public defenders represent are underprivileged and lack access to an Internet device by which to appear via Zoom.
Outside of court hearings, this barrier presents another problem. For a while, defendants couldn't even meet with their lawyers in person, and not everyone has the technology needed to sign and scan documents remotely.
"I do like having a lot of the hearings by Zoom," Sanow said, "but at the same time, when there's a vaccine (for COVID-19) and we have the option of meeting in person again, I'll be happy."
Even after the coronavirus pandemic lifts, there may be some types of hearings that continue to occur remotely in perpetuity, now that the infrastructure is set up to accommodate that.
Over the next few years, Sanow added, "there are going to be some interesting legal questions" that arise. For example, because jury trials weren't permitted for several months, some incarcerated defendants had their trials delayed and therefore spent more time than expected in jail while awaiting trial.
"Our judges are taking the fact that people are in custody very seriously," Delaney said. However, during those few months, there wasn't much that could be done to speed up a trail, since juror safety is paramount.
Hundreds of defendants have appeared remotely over the last six months, which is totally different from the court process less than a year ago. Some serious convictions may go to the Minnesota Court of Appeals on the grounds that their due process rights were violated either by a longer incarceration or by appearing via Zoom.
How to handle court hearings during a pandemic hasn't been a question for more than a century, Sanow noted — and the available technology didn't exist the last time.
Although most hearings are Zoom-only, Sanow emphasized that they are just as open to the public as ever. To watch a hearing via Zoom, interested parties should contact court administration at (507) 350-3015 for the link.